Learning when to let go of free

4 Nights on RCCL to Cuba

One of the hardest lessons to learn in travel hacking is knowing when to let go of a trip, particularly when it is ‘free’.

Recently, we took another gamble on Vegas.  For new readers (or those who didn’t keep up with this) when we ‘Vegas’ we don’t gamble in the same way that others do.  To the casual observer, gambling means taking some money, putting it in a slot machine or table game, and hoping for the best (regardless of card counting ability).

We approach the gamble very differently.  My upside is not connected to winning or losing money, but whether the event of gambling triggers enough Comp to come out ahead of either financial result.  If I lose $5000 but ‘win’ $50K in comp, I’ll take it.   For those who MS, compare this to the guarantee of paying ~$7 to buy and liquidate a gift card that earns you $25 vs paying ~$0 to Kiva but knowing that there will be an element of randomness to the fee you pay.

Our latest gamble didn’t pay off.  We were offered a free cruise on RCCL, but could get no further details.  It could be a 7 night on the biggest, sparkliest ship in a suite (spoiler alert, it wasn’t), or 2 nights cruise to nowhere on their oldest tug boat. We wouldn’t know until we went to the booth to pick up the certificate.  We rolled the dice.

Controlling the narrative

We stacked the odds in our favor by controlling the narrative of the trip. Rather than it being about going to Vegas to pick up the Certificate, it was about a nice vacation that incidentally involved us walking past this booth, and maybe hitting the Jackpot.  We used points for flights (outbound in First Class because we wanted to control the flow of the vacation) the room was comped, and we had several hundred in free money from MGM and Caesars to spend on food.

In the end, because we focused on spending the free money wisely, and willingly spent real money outside of those chains to experience things that mattered, the trip turned out really well. This offset the loss on the certificate.

Close, but no cigar

Our offer
Our offer from MGM for RCCL

We came close to picking a 4 or 5 night cruise that visited Cuba, as we haven’t been before. I even took the step of seeing if we could work around RCCL’s Partial Cruise rules that specifically cite Nassau as a hotspot port for cabotage:

If a passenger (as listed on a vessel passenger manifest) embarks in a U.S. port and the vessel calls in a nearby foreign port (such as Ensenada, Grand Cayman and Nassau) and then returns to the U.S., the person must disembark in the same U.S. port. A passenger who embarks and disembarks in two different U.S. ports (such as Los Angeles and San Diego) would result in the carrier (not the violator) being fined. The vessel must call in a distant foreign port before the U.S. embarkation and disembarkation ports can differ. The nearest distant foreign ports are in or off the coast of South America. If either the passenger’s embarkation port or disembarkation port is in a foreign country, then the provisions of this cabotage law do not apply. Nor do they apply in Puerto Rico and the U.S. Virgin Islands.

The plan for this was to find an itinerary that touched base in Cuba first, to clear Cabotage, then disembark in Nassau to stay at Atlantis (also for free) before flying NAS>JFK non stop. It would be a good example of how we splice together travel these days:

  • JFK>FLL on ‘whoever is the cheapest in pts’
  • Feb 16th: Would need 1 night hotel pre cruise (to keep stress low)
  • Feb 17th embark 4 Night cruise, but exit in Nassau
  • Several nights at Atlantis, and home to JFK 

(the cabotage issue would be that ‘short hops’ outside of the US require you to re-enter the US at the same point you departed, so a nonstop to JFK from NAS might be an issue.. Cuba might address that, but Cuba also isn’t the best Country to be leaning on to help clear up US immigration concerns… oh, and incidentally I’m currently exploring Naturalization, so that would be a factor).

Letting go of free

It was almost a great trip. The cruise fare for two would be taxes and fees only, so around $230, but once you add in the 3rd guest, and the onboard gratuities, we would be around $800-900.  Also, the ship wasn’t that sparkly.  I might pay $800-900 to experience the Oasis Class, but for the older ships, I didn’t think it great value.  

I understand that to someone else, it would be great value, but the final piece for us was that we really want to see Cuba, so the alternative option of flying nonstop JFK>HAV and spending a few nights in Cuba seemed a lot more immersive. There was a lot of fluff and waste with the cruise, so despite it being a deal compared to paying full rate, it wasn’t a deal to us.

The decision increasingly includes the following:

If we’re going to a destination to see it, does the ‘free’ trip cover the bases, or is it only somewhat OK? Traveling even to somewhere close like Havana takes a fair amount of time (driving to/from airports+flights+whatnot) so it is important to us to visually walk through how the vacation would feel. Perhaps it would feel fine on a cruise in some cases, but in others, and when the price is already perhaps more than immersion, the ‘free’ option doesn’t fit.

Factors on why our thinking may differ from yours:

Demand/Load – we have other options.  The cruise gig is now totally out of hand where we could book at least 8 cruises in the next 6 months to basically anywhere in the world.  While it is hard to do, especially with a new line like RCCL, something has to give else we will just be on vacation permanently.  If we had no other cruise options, I think we’d likely go for this one, but at some point, we had to say no.

So.. we didn’t hit the jackpot in Vegas this time around, but we learned to say no to free. When doing so, we also agreed that we could risk losing Atlantis too, as it wasn’t a good time to travel right now.  The next challenge for us is whether we can say no to the gamble. IE, if we are offered a similarly obscure ‘free cruise’ if we go to Vegas, will we decline unless they give us the details, or will we roll the dice again?  

Here’s some posts on what I’ve been doing on the gambling stuff, so you don’t have to search for it.  For those following, our offers are now down to 3 nights in a room vs suite, and $50 in F&B, and I am now getting marketing from Circus Circus vs Aria Skysuites.  Our trip to Vegas to pick up this Voucher is written up here: Storytelling through food. We spend $0 ‘gambling’ because actual casino gambling, no matter how savvy you think you are, is throwing away money. 

mLife Gold Complimentary Cruises

mLife Math & the bet, the ROI, and the next step

Introduction to Manufactured Spend: at Sea Edition

Aria Sky Suites, a Bromance made in heaven

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* This article was originally published here

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